Do Americans lack the vocabulary to talk about social responsibility?

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In the minds of many Americans, the United States is the land of the self-made man: the rugged individual who pulls himself up by his bootstraps. The value of self-reliance is central to our personal and national identity. The language of “individual responsibility” dominates the political debate.

But our connections to each other—and the responsibility we have to the communities and country we share—are more abstract. It’s uncommon to hear political leaders talk about social responsibility.

In American Aspirations focus groups with people from many different backgrounds across the U.S., we asked participants whether they think most Americans “do their part” for the good of the country and what it means to “do your part.”

The word map below shows the terms people used to express a positive narrative about social responsibility. This narrative says that Americans are caring people, who do our part to pull others up and bring people together. When we each do our part, people said, we build strong, united communities.

Participants defined “doing your part” in three ways:

Doing our civic duty by voting, getting involved in local government, and taking the time to be informed citizens.

Getting involved in our communities by volunteering in local organizations, giving to charity, and getting to know our neighbors.

Taking responsibility for ourselves and our loved ones by working hard and doing our best to provide for our needs.

These insights provide the foundation for talking about how individuals can do our part for the good of our communities and country. But in our focus group conversations we found that people’s language about social responsibility focused on these kinds of individual action. Most participants struggled to articulate the responsibility of business and government leaders to do their part for the common good.

A narrative about social responsibility can’t begin and end with individual action. Business and government also have responsibilities to society. Unfortunately, the dominant narrative in society and politics says that businesses don’t have a responsibility to anyone but their shareholders. And many politicians work on behalf of their powerful and privileged donors, rather than doing what is best for all.

Organizations seeking systemic change need the cooperation of business and government in order to achieve meaningful, lasting results. A more complete narrative about social responsibility needs to go beyond individual responsibility, and speak to the responsibility of government and business to make America work for the good of all. For example:

“Responsible Americans do our best to stand on our own two feet and do our part for the common good. We vote, pay our taxes, volunteer in our communities and much more.

Government has a responsibility to work for the common good, not the privileged few.

Businesses have responsibilities to their employees, customers and society, not just their bottom line.

America works best for everyone when all of us meet our responsibilities.”

American Aspirations research shows that a narrative like this can appeal to Americans of many different backgrounds and beliefs. It can begin a new conversation about responsibility that honors America’s tradition of rugged individualism while shining a light on the roles of business and government in making America work for all.

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